We left Katherine in the Northern Territory with a familiar sense of dread. It was time for another very long drive in very toasty weather as we travelled from the Top End to the Red Centre of Australia.
Our next destination was over 1181 kilometres away in Alice Springs. A quick stop over before fanging down to Yulara to see the mighty Uluru and Kata Tjuta monoliths (Ayers Rock and the Olgas to those old school colonial types).
Waterholes and watering holes on the way to Alice Springs
Our Lonely Planet guide book made a half-hearted attempt at recommending some points of interest along the way to Alice Springs and we visited these to break up the drive. Mantaranka thermal springs and the Daly Waters pub were really naff and run down without being at all charming. The latter lures backpackers in with highway signs pointing to ‘one of Australia’s great outback pubs’ and then smacks them about the head with horrible Australiana memorabilia. We’re sorry, but nailing half a dozen thongs (flip flops) to a tin wall does not an attraction make.
When we finally arrived in Alice we took a turn about the town. We had been told to expect a dangerous outback ghetto but found lots of interesting indigenous art galleries and museums instead. The Royal Flying Doctors Service museum was particularly good. They had a theatre showing a short film on its history and the awkwardly-acted John Flynn hologram gave us the giggles. For those that don’t know, he’s the guy on the Australian twenty dollar note. The organisation he started in the 1930s is now responsible for providing regional folks with emergency and health care services, covering an area of 7.13 million square kilometres. We’ve come to appreciate just how big this waiting room is as we drive across the country.
Uluru where are you?
Hot tip for new players – Alice Springs is not close to Uluru. Yeah they’re both in the middle bit of the country, but the Rock is still another five hours down the road. As one of the most photographed bits of Australia, it’s embarrassing to say that we couldn’t quite find the Rock. There was a bit of premature identification going on as we drove past Mount Connor (apparently it’s quite common amongst backpackers). Turns out there was still 80 kilometres to go!
There is only one official campsite in Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort Complex) and it was so full they put us into the overflow section, which was really just a patch of red desert. But from here we could finally see the Rock so we walked to the sunset viewing platform with all and sundry.
The next day we headed out to Uluru with two of Gareth’s friends. As we drove the three debated the pros and cons of climbing the Rock. As Englishmen, they didn’t quite grasp the importance of NOT climbing it, until we arrived at the Visitor Centre and watched a very informative video on the cultural and political history of Uluru. In addition to it no longer being cool to climb, we found out that the National Park’s caretakers receive packages almost every week from travellers who had taken a bit of rock or sand back home and regretted the bad ju-ju.
We opted for the 10 kilometre base walk which while flat, was quite challenging in the midday heat. Uluru was just as impressive as all the photos make out, even more so because it had some surprising features, including an odd rocky red skin that looked like dragon scales and lots of secret caves and waterholes hidden within its midst. Some of these areas are particularly sacred and you’re not supposed to photograph them. We laughed when we saw the legs of a trapped drone sticking out from a natural shelf near the top of the Rock. Instant karma.
We booked an evening astronomy tour with the resort, as the remote Red Centre is one of the best places in Australia for stargazing, but unfortunately, the sky clouded over as we took the caps off our telescopes.
Visiting the Dreamtime at Kata Tjuta
The previous night’s disappointment was forgotten when we arrived at Kata Tjuta. It was as breathtaking as Uluru, in a completely different way. One of the best bits about the Olgas is that you’re encouraged to climb all over them. We set off on another walk, hiking up and down the boulders to snag great views across the desert to Uluru. Walking through the dreamy ’Valley of the Winds’ the vivid landscape of red rocks, blue sky, green gums and purple wildflowers seemed almost surreal.
If you’re going all the way to Uluru, make sure you see Kata Tjuta. And don’t just snap a photo from the viewing deck a few kilometres out – get stuck into it! There are walks for every state of knee enfeeblement.
Free camping on the dunes
After hearing rumours of a free camp just outside the park, we ventured into the sand dunes to seek it out. Moby the campervan made it up the first dune and we decided to play it as it lay rather than push our luck. The view was accidentally fantastic. We watched the sun set over Uluru and Kata Tjuta all purple and pink without any interruption from school girl selfies or nagging grey nomads.
Later on, as we sat around with cups of tea we indulged in the popular camping tradition of getting spooked out while sharing ghost stories. Suddenly Stu froze mid-sentence, as he noticed two eyes shining in the dark. We followed the beam of his head torch, revealing a wild dog a few metres from our chairs. With a yelp and a few Brummie obscenities, we leaped into the van and slammed the door. All four of us crouched in the back, staring at each with wide eyes and emitting crazy giggles (just Shelley). None of us had seen a dingo before. Lee threatened to knife the dingo while Stu peered out the window, looking for the rest of the pack. For a few seconds, as we tried to swallow our hysteria, every yellow-white trunk of gum was dog shaped.
Crime and punishment
In the morning the dingo came back while we were making breakfast, and as she curled into a ball for a nap we realised that she was just a hungry mother with pups hidden nearby. Silly backpackers. This what happens when you’re fed too many memes on all the NOPEs of Australian wildlife.
Shelley faced another backpacker fear that very morning: the dreaded bush poo. After surviving two months in a campervan without a toilet, we were proud that neither of us had to unfold the foldable shovel. But with 50 kilometres to go before the nearest roadhouse, Shelley started to sweat. Something was very wrong with her innards. As painful cramps hit her guts she asked Gaz to stop the van. He declined. With words to the effect of ‘If you don’t pull over now I will poo myself!’ Shelley gave Gaz a pained, desperate look he will never ever forget. After a hasty halt, Shelley jumped out and scarpered over the red dunes to her doom.
Highs: Taking in the Rock and Kata Tjuta too
Lows: Doing a poo on Uluru